Blessing and curse of child sponsorships

Around the holidays, commercials with children’s eyes pleading encourage them to donate. Critics complain that the children are helped, but not the developing countries in which they live. Switzerland, for example, has withdrawn the seal of approval from donation organisations that establish direct contact with children.

“Dear Godmother! Today I learned something again!” Male voice: “Develop, experience – secure the future of a needy child! Become a World Vision Godfather – help in a personally comprehensible way”.

Every year again. Every year the appeals for donations flutter into the mailbox, the advertising videos flicker across the screens. Every year, aid organizations ask for donations for people in need – for example with videos like this one, in which the Christian relief organization “World Vision” advertises on the Internet. Because without children it does not go in the struggle for donations. They smile and shine for the competition.

And every year anew they open the hearts and wallets of millions of people. Organizations that offer child sponsorships are at the forefront of this competition. Child sponsorships have proven to be a wonder weapon on the German donation market.

“Welcome to the world of World Vision. Well, there are now more than 150,000 people in Germany who support disadvantaged people through their sponsorship. And you, too, can be a part of it and help a child celebrate his next birthday. As sad as that may be, no birthday can be taken for granted. In Africa alone, 51 percent of children die before their fifth birthday.

Through your sponsorship at World Vision, you can give a child the greatest gift of all: you help him to live a healthy life. Your monthly contribution makes it possible for the child to be cared for as it needs to be, year after year. And then: Congratulations, or: A lot of happy birthdays.”

But what is behind the innocent smile and the big saucer eyes? The fate of a child? The fate of a family? Or perhaps the future of an entire aid project? And why do so many organisations want to help children, but only a few adults?

Many donors are confused about these questions. And even among experts, child sponsorships – despite their success – have been controversial for years. Although the tones between critics and supporters have become more conciliatory in the meantime, the differences in content continue to exist.

Martin Bröckelmann-Simon, Managing Director for International Cooperation at Misereor, explains why the Catholic Relief Agency is appealing for donations with children’s photos, but not with child sponsorships:

“We support projects with communities and groups and not with individuals, and we do not pick out individuals either, but child sponsorship organisations do. They focus on a single child, as an example for those to be helped. So the donors can – I am not saying that it has to be like this – get the impression that with their help they are supporting a single child in a very targeted and exclusive way. But that is not the case.”

Confused donors? Help only for individual children? Marc Tornow rejects these accusations. For the spokesman of Plan International Germany, child sponsorships are far more than just a marketing instrument.

“Sponsorships are at the heart of our cooperation. It’s about much more than just a picture of a child being shown and by no means about a marketing strategy. Those who support us also know this. We want to make a connection. We make a connection to the sponsored children and via the sponsored children to the sponsored child families and the communities.”

About one percent of the population in Germany has adopted a child. The four large sponsorship organisations Plan, World Vision, SOS Children’s Villages and Kindernothilfe alone have more than 500,000 supporting members in Germany.

Wolfgang Thielmann has been a sponsor of Kindernothilfe for ten years. Together with his family, he has supported a total of three children with one sponsorship over the long term.

“Our first child was Gabriela, whom we accompanied and supported for three years. And then a deregistration form came from her. It said that her mother qualified as a hairdresser in the institution where Gabriela was, and that she had now built a house in another, better quarter and that she was moving away with the child.

We were then contacted if we wanted to stay and we said yes, and then a new child was suggested to us.”

By sponsoring children, the family father wanted to sensitize his daughter to the fact that there are many children of her age who are not as well off as she is. In the meantime, his daughter has grown up. Wolfgang Thielmann could well imagine supporting a normal project. After all, the donations raised through child sponsorships do not only benefit a single child, but also the family and its environment.

What today seems to be taken for granted, was the cause of a long-lasting development policy controversy in the 80s and 90s. Organisations such as Misereor, Terre des hommes and Welthungerhilfe mobilised against the catalog-like advertising of child sponsorship organisations.

Their accusation: This kind of donor address not only violates the personal rights of children, but also reveals a deeply paternalistic attitude. In addition, the concentration on children distracts from the social problems that are one of the causes of child poverty.